Texas Fast Track Procedure for Civil Lawsuits

In the last Legislature (82nd), House Bill 274 was passed, which made many changes to the Texas Government Code, Texas Rules of Evidence, and Texas Rules of Civil Procedure in order to try and control the speed and costs of legal actions. They took a two prong approach in order to do this: 1) create Rule 91a and amend Rule 47 of the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure, and 2) create Rule 169 of the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure and amend Rule 190 of the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure. The first changes made affect the ability to dismiss the case and damages. I will talk about these changes in another article. I would like to focus on the portion of the rule changes that promote an expedited action of the cases.

This part I personally believe have been needed for a while, in the sense that it has become too easy for some sides to make it their main defense strategy to delay, stall, and perform excessive discovery merely in an attempt to increase the attorney’s fees to amounts that eventually become un-payable by the claimants. Hopefully, the intent of the law will actually play out in real life, because we all know not everything works out as well as intended.

Again, the rules below only apply to cases where damages are less than $100K (including all penalties, costs, expenses, pre-judgment interest and attorney’s fees) and do not involve the Family, Property, and Tax codes or Chapter 74 of the Civil Practice & Remedies Code.

The first part of the changes involves instituting rules for expedited actions (Rule 169 of the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure). All this really means is that they are trying to put hard and fast deadlines in the case so one side can’t abuse the system with delay tactics, which will expedite the case and keep fees down. Here is a general breakdown (of course, there are exceptions and differences, so I have posted a link to full changes at the end of the article):

  • Discovery is governed by Rule 190.2 (covered below)
  • The court must set the case for trial within 90 days of the discovery period ending, and the court may continue the case twice, but the continuances may not exceed a total of 60 days.
  • As far as the trial goes, each side is allowed no more than eight hours to complete everything. However, the court may allow up to twelve hours per side.
  • The court may refer the case to an alternative dispute resolution procedure once, but may not exceed a half-day. Further, the ADR procedure is not to exceed the total cost of twice the amount of applicable civil filing, and must be completed no later than 60 days before initial trial setting.
  • A party may only challenge the admissibility of expert testimony as an objection to summary judgment evidence under Rule 166 or during the trial on merits.
The next part that was added was intended to stop discovery abuse or, at a minimum, keep discovery to reasonable levels (Rule 190 of the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure). These apply to any case that falls under the expedited actions discussed above and to divorce actions involving less than $50,000. Here are the limitations instituted:
  • All discovery must be completed within 180 days of the first request of discovery by either party.
  • Each party may have no more than six hours total to examine and cross-examine all witnesses in oral depositions. This may be expanded up to ten hours if both parties agree.
  • No more than 15 interrogatories.
  • No more than 15 requests for production.
  • No more than 15 request for admissions.
This is only an over view of the changes if you would like more info or the detailed updates to the rules here is a full copy to the changes of the rules:http://www.supreme.courts.state.tx.us/MiscDocket/13/13902200.pdf

Law Changes: Mandate Attorney’s Fees in Foreclosure Actions and Higher Interest in Contract Claims Against Local Government

Over the last several months I have written about several of the law changes that were produced by the 82nd Texas Congressional Session.  First was the change in the contract indemnification laws, I then wrote about the changes involving lien waivers and retainage notices.  Well these last two involve two relatively small changes to the Texas Property Code.  However, these “small” changes could possibly have large implications with regards to obtaining your attorney’s fees and interest in some construction litigation.  These are TX SB 539 and TX HB 345.

With regards to SB 539, there was a one word substitution from may to shall that now requires a court to award costs and attorney fees in any proceeding to foreclose a lien or to enforce a claim against a bond on a municipal project.  As far as I’m concerned the less wiggle room you give to a judge on what the Court “may” award, the better.  Additionally, I have already found that this new law has been helpful in settling mechanic’s lien and bond claims because I tell them “look, if we foreclose on our suit we are automatically going to get our attorney’s fees.”  That has much more weight than “a Judge might award us attorney’s fees.”

Again with HB 345, the law was changed to clarify how the interest should be calculated on breach of contract lawsuits against local governments.  It now uses the same interest calculation used under the prompt pay statute, which is eighteen percent per annum.

If you have ever talked to a non-construction law attorney who tries to figure out the mechanic’s lien/bond claim statutes in the Texas Property Code, they will usually tell you they are confusing and vague.  Well I believe these two new additions, in addition to the other ones we have already covered this year, are a step forward in clarifying and adding weight to the Statutes.  It is important to note that both of these laws are already in effect and have been in effect since September 1, 2011.

Law Changes: Lien Waivers and Retainage Notices

In addition to the new indemnification laws that we discussed during the last blog post, there are other laws and bills that were passed that greatly affect the construction industry.  One of them is HB 1456 the other is HB 1390 you can find the full text of the new laws here: TX HB 1456 and TX HB 1390.

HB 1456 Goes into effect January 1st and pertains to Lien waivers.  You may recall it was just a few months ago I went over some of the pit falls of lien waivers in the blog post Lien Releases: Look Before You Leap.  Well HB 1456 changes how lien waivers are handled.  It provides standard forms for conditional and unconditional lien waivers.  It also fixes something that has plagued the building industry, trying to force sub-contractors to sign an unconditional waiver before payment has been made in full for the invoice or work in question.

Here is the text from the law that fixes that issue:

“A person may not require a claimant or potential claimant
to execute an unconditional waiver and release for a progress
payment or final payment amount unless the claimant or potential
claimant received payment in that amount in good and sufficient
funds.”

One other item the new law provides are conditional and unconditional waiver forms that must be substantially complied withto be valid.

The law that arose from  HB 1390 pertains to how retainage notices were to be handled since September 1, 2011.  Back in 2009 (view it here: retainage claims) I wrote about when Retainage notices are due.  HB 1390 now allows the notices to be given at the end of the project instead of requiring the contractors and/or subcontractors to give Retainage Notices at the beginning of the project.  This is important because I very rarely saw the retainage notices being timely sent, if at all.

I am VERY excited about the changes in these laws.  These go so far in protecting the Texas Contractors and takes care of many of these issues that have come up in my legal practice almost daily in the past few years.  Again, the lawmakers have gone a long way to strengthen some of the loopholes that have been used time and time again by the unsavory.

Beware of the Changes in the Contractual Indemnification Laws in Texas

On January 1, 2012, a new law will go into effect that is known as the Anti-indemnification Bill (HB 2093).  This will affect most construction contracts that are currently being used.

Currently, most contracts that the General Contractor requires sub-contractors to sign have an indemnification clause that limits the GC’s own liability and holds it squarely in the hands of the sub-contractor.  The great news is that those parts of any contract signed after January 1, 2012 will be void (with a few exceptions of course).

Here is a more thorough breakdown of how this law will change the way contracts need to be written:

  • A GC can no longer require a subcontractor to indemnify the GC of their own sole or partial negligence.  Indemnity clauses violating this prohibition will be void and unenforceable.
  • Unless you enter into a “Joint Defense Agreement” after a claim has been asserted, a GC’s contract can no longer require a subcontractor to defend the GC from claims based on the GC’s own negligence.
  • Additional Insured endorsements to a subcontractor’s liability insurance policy that purport to provide coverage for the GC’s sole or partial negligence, so long as the claim arises from the Subcontractor’s work, are also no longer enforceable.  It is very likely that ISO specific Additional Insured endorsement forms will be prepared to cover this in Texas (but see below).
  • NOTE:  These restrictions on indemnification (both with regard to claims and defense of claims) and on Additional Insured endorsements do NOT apply to on-the-job employee personal injury claims.  Accordingly, a GC can still make a Subcontractor defend and indemnify the GC for the Subcontractor’s own sole or partial negligence for a personal injury claim by an employee of the GC (or even other subcontractors of the GC).   This means that the current broad form intermediate or additional insured endorsements will still be enforceable in situations where personal injuries occur on the job in Texas.

The good news is that, so far, it looks like the lawmakers got it right this time.  They finally put some laws in place to give equal bargaining power to general contractors and subcontractors.  If you are a General Contractor and you are depending on these provisions to protect yourself, as of January 1st, you need to think again.  And as for Subcontractors, you no longer have to sign contracts with these provisions in them.